Monday, 30 August 2010

PM Says Palestine Will Soon Be Ready for Statehood

AOL News August 30, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Aug. 30) -- Days before the first direct Mideast peace talks in more than 18 months, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad declared that the process had reached "a moment of reckoning," while in Israel statements by protesting actors and an outspoken rabbi fueled furious public debates.

Launching a 50-page document titled "Homestretch to Freedom," Fayyad said that "by mid-next year, the Palestinian Authority ... will have accomplished a critical mass of positive change on the ground consistent with the emergence of their independent sovereign state."

Fayyad seeks to create all the necessary bodies of a fully functioning independent state, from police and judiciary to banks and tax collectors. A Palestinian currency is in the works, and government-backed investment bonds will be issued in the spring. Schools, universities, health services, diplomatic missions and scientific laboratories are being prepared for independence -- just as soon as a peace deal is signed and Israel withdraws its troops and 300,000 settlers to the pre-1967 boundaries.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad addresses a news conference in Ramallah on August 30.
Abbas Momani, AFP / Getty Images
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad addresses a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepare for the relaunch of U.S.-brokered direct Middle East peace talks in Washington.

Those conditions are far from fulfilled, but Fayyad said the only way to try to ensure the success of this week's Washington talks is to behave as if the sovereign state of Palestine is already on the way.

"I think this can happen. I believe it must happen," Fayyad told reporters in Ramallah. "Our goal here is to prepare for that day, to have arrived at the state of preparation for statehood in the best form that we can possibly achieve."

Last year Fayyad accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of wanting a "Mickey Mouse state" for the Palestinians. Today he said the time had come for the Israeli leader to define what kind of state he had in mind. "I think this is a most fundamental question, and I believe ... we are approaching that moment of reckoning, when some questions really need to be answered seriously," he said.

At the same time, Israelis are debating the 40-plus-year occupation of the West Bank seriously for the first time in many years.

For decades, peace activists and human rights groups have been issuing detailed and often shocking reports about the creeping growth of settlements and the dire conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank. They have been largely ignored by the majority of the Israeli public.

That indifference was shattered over the weekend as the result of a prosaic announcement by several leading theater and dance companies welcoming the completion of a new cultural center and theater in Ariel, one of the largest West Bank settlements with 17,000 residents.

More than 100 actors, playwrights and directors promptly signed a letter to the six leading theater companies refusing to perform at the new theater.

"We wish to express our disgust with the theater boards' plans to perform in the new auditorium in Ariel. The actors among us hereby declare that we will refuse to perform in Ariel, as well as in any other settlement. We urge the boards to hold their activity within the sovereign borders of the State of Israel," they wrote.

Yehoshua Sobol, the acclaimed author of "Ghetto" and other notable plays, said Ariel was "in occupied territory, and no one can force an Israeli citizen to work or express his art beyond the borders of the country."

Netanyahu denounced the protest and threatened to cut funding from artists promoting "boycotts against Israel's citizens." Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman slammed "the vileness, baseness and hypocrisy of those who work in culture and call for a boycott of us."

Scores more Israeli actors, pop stars and other artists responded by saying they would be eager to perform in Ariel. Nachman reflected after a few days of the controversy that he couldn't have wished for better publicity for his new cultural center.

Israeli theater has for years been a forum for exploring the rights and wrongs of the occupation and its effect on Israeli society. One memorable play, "Plonter" ("Tangle"), portrayed the challenges faced by a Palestinian family waking one morning to find Israel's 30-foot-high security wall built through their living room. The audience entered the theater through a fake but convincing military checkpoint. But the discussion has been confined to the tiny minority of cerebral Israelis who attend theater productions.

In the past few days, as an extraordinary debate has flowed back and forth across the front pages and broadcast media, the arguments for and against the continued existence of such settlements as Ariel have received rare public attention.

"The theatrical world has never before expressed in such sharp terms the experience that Israeli society as a whole is undergoing," says Michel Kichka, a political cartoonist and professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Actors -- citizens with opinions, positions and a conscience -- are prepared to say out loud things that are not so nice to hear. It is impossible to remain on the sidelines. Everyone has the democratic duty to take a stand."

Israelis have a combative, even verbally violent, style of political debate. They were outdone over the weekend by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the octogenarian spiritual leader of the Shas religious party, which is a junior member of Netanyahu's government. In a weekly address to congregants at his synagogue in Jerusalem, the elderly rabbi, who is known for his colorful and often brutal turn of phrase, appeared to call for the death of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (who is known as Abu Mazen) and his people.

"May our enemies and those who hate us be put to an end, Abu Mazen and all these evil people, may they be made gone from the world," Yosef said. "The Holy One, blessed be he, should smite them with plague, they and these Palestinians, the evil Israel-baiters."

His remarks were condemned by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, and Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying they "do not reflect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the Israeli government's stance."

But the Palestinian prime minister said Netanyahu, who has condemned inflammatory Palestinian remarks and actions, had not gone far enough.

"It certainly does not go well for creating conditions conducive to the success of a process that is aimed chiefly at ending the conflict," said Fayyad, adding that such statements and incitement "probably are in part to blame for extreme actions by extremists, attacks on our citizens by settlers, raids on their farms and homes."

"One should expect more from the government of Israel than to just express reservation vis-a-vis statements of this seriousness," he said.

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